Friday, December 16, 2005

Strike update 

So, thankfully, the union has not ordered a system-wide strike. Some union members who work for private lines (and are thus exempt from the Taylor Law) have been ordered to strike, but the disruption is minimal (and non-existent in Manhattan--although the disruption from some stupid-ass Howard Stern rally did f up my walk to work.

The union seems to wisely realize that, regardless of who is right and wrong, a strike would really be terrible for the city. But I do imagine they will ratchet up the strikes as time goes on. We'll see.

Yesterday, I emailed many friends to get their take on the strike situation. I think, to a one, they seemed to be much more on the side of the MTA than the TWU. I, on the whole, think this is mistaken (this is not to say that, on each and every negotiating point, the union is right and the MTA is wrong). I just think it's dangerous and wrongheaded to think "oh, these people don't deserve a raise, don't deserve what they fought for over the years, don't know how good they have it," etc. Don't be fooled by some op-ed written in the Times by someone from the radical right-wing (and racist--just go read some of their stuff on Katrina and racial profiling) Manhattan Institute, an op-ed that skews overall city salaries down and TWU salaries up.

Now, Steve G. posted yesterday about this, after he and I had a little back and forth via email. His statement that white, liberal office workers are against the union comes from my emails--as I was telling him that my friends (who, in general, are in that category) seem to be mostly if not uniformly on the side of the MTA. Read his post and the comments. Now, he sees racism where I don't, but I think his viewpoint is still worthwhile. I do want to specifically point to a comment made to his post, about what these workers really have to go through. Then you tell me whether they should be doing this at age 65.
As to the issue of the cleaners in particular, I have a bias--one of my very best friends works for the MTA as a cleaning supervisor. Which ain't as cushy as it seems because in spite of his supervisor title, he still has to clean...and I mean clean EVERYTHING.

They empty the rat-filled garbage cans which they are trained to kick several times before unlatching, to scare the foot-long vermin out. Larger, older rats tend to be haughtier and simply lay in the bag, continuing to feast--until they get agitated from the cleaner jostling it too much and leap from the bag's mouth. Lots of fun if you're the poor f*ck of a cleaner looking into one after hearing a suspicious "clang" or hard something else hit the floor within the bag.

They pick up the LARGE rat droppings that accumulate near drainpipes and large
cracks. Bet ya didn't know that extended exposure to mouse and rat droppings can lead to people contracting Hantavirus, a nasty viral condition that is like a cross between a cold and meningitis and can leave you floored for weeks. Cleaners come down with this more often than even garbagemen in NYC--but only get 13 sick days a year--and the MTA wants them to give one of those back as a concession this go 'round.

They scoop up the human sh*t, and hose down the p*ss that uncaring straphangers deposit at the extreme front ends of stations (harder to be seen by fellow riders and personnel) since the demise of in-station bathrooms in the 80's. Combine all of that exposure to rats, their leavings and people's waste leavings with the lovely effects of the inhalation of the fine steel dust that comes off every wheel of every train that screeches to a halt in a station. Mmm-mmm! Healthy! Throw in the exposure to sewage which runs through certain stations unfettered as the lines often sit on or just below trackbed level. The Spring St. station on the 6 Line is notable for this. What a bouquet.

Finally, there is the additional debilitation of the sheer physical nature of the job itself. Up and down steps, lugging cans, bags, solvents and cleaners (toxic too!). My friend who is my age, looks 15 years older thanks to the backbreaking nature of his thankless job. Working down there ages you prematurely, brings on adult onset asthma and is hell on the knees and back. Plus, teams of cleaners are not assigned to stations--it is often A cleaner who is given a row of stations to clean (i.e. Parsons, Sutphin, Van Wyck in Queens) or one "Monster" (their term) to do (ala' the dangerous and massive Broadway-Lafayette station in SoHo). That cleaner has to clean that station from stem to stern with at most, a second cleaner to help--but oft-tmes not even that. The only time larger (more than one or the rarer still, two cleaners) teams are used is if a particular station gets written up in the news as filthy or the MWUs (Mobile Wash Units) that do the nighttime hosedowns of a week's worth of gunk.

They often wear "rat-proof" pants (actually "snake-proof", but are purchased for MTA workers from game warden catalogs) especially when traversing the "sea of rats"--a grate with a teeming multitude of leaping vermin below it at the 63rd St. station on the IND line. They throw sticks, sawed off mop handles and softballs into "Maint of Way" rooms, converted bathrooms and utility closets inhabited from floor to ceiling by rats--and often disturbed, angry homeless people stealing a moment's privacy.

I tell my friend "Man...I couldn't work down here!", and he simply says "Well...we can't all think like that, because somebody's got to." I stopped telling him what I make about ten years ago, because I knew it would p*ss him off, knowing what he was (or more honestly, was not) making in relation to what we do for a living respectively.

I'm not saying give the union the 24% over the three years--that's too damn much--but fer chrissakes, can they at least acknowledge the difficulty of the work, be a tad generous with the surpluses and own up to the rather unfair givebacks of the last few previous deals by paying these people something at least comfortable that keeps up with the cost of living? 12-15% over the next three years or something? With some minor, non-dignity robbing givebacks? (Like ditchng the sweep-up fare clerk idea and phasing out the MTA "Dicks" who are sent to check up on sick-at-home workers?)

Is ther any f*cking harm in giving 'em something decent? Really????
LowerManhattanite | 12.15.05 - 7:52 pm
I think that speaks for itself. Another issue I want to highlight, specifically as it relates to healthcare, is the idea of what unions fight for and why. Unions are a way for working people to enter the middle class. It's as simple as that. Without a union, these workers would be making $18-20k/year, not $50. They wouldn't have health care. They'd be on public assistance, and, frankly, they wouldn't be able to afford to raise a family in the city they worked in--and in this case, the city they make work. This union fought to get their healthcare, and to say that new workers need to pay 2% of their salary to premiums is an insult to those previous generations of workers who fought to get that right to healthcare. And this year, in a year of surpluses, the MTA asks for 2%. You better believe that, if there's a recession the next time the contract comes up, the MTA will be asking that 2% to become 5 or 8%. A union can't just give back something it fought for, or pretty soon that union will be forced to take whatever management shoves down its throat.

I think today, we can be happy that a strike was temporarily averted, or at least postponed. And please think about why unions exist, why we need to support them, and, lastly, why they are an integral part of any progressive agenda moving forward, including much-needed reform on the minimum wage and health care.
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